The Legacy of Divings Founding Fathers

By Jean-Michel Cousteau


As anyone who knows me will attest, I have a very open mind. But I also have a few unshakable convictions. Among these fundamental convictions is the strong belief that diving involves responsibility as well as fun.

Not that I am a spoil sport. On the contrary, if diving could not be enjoyed for the sheer pleasure of it, none of us would do it. Recreational diving owes its success above all to its ability to satisfy us on so many levels;the hypnotic play of light under water, the sensual thrill of flying over bottomless canyons and the excitement of viewing wildlife up close.

But beyond these pleasures, diving is an immense privilege. Although a few million people now dive, that number pales beside the multitudes who snowboard or mountain bike. Our sport involves an initial financial outlay of considerable size for equipment, training and certification. And, it usually entails further expenditure for travel to the really spectacular dive destinations such as Palau, Honduras or the Red Sea.

In terms of cash and numbers, it remains the sport of an elite. Considering that this elite few million people have a playground that covers more than 70 percent of the Earths surface, I am tempted to call them spoiled. Ah, but this is where the responsibility comes in and sets them apart from the rest of the recreationally inclined.

Despite their size, the oceans of the world are immensely stressed by human activities. Unfortunately, they are so large science has only begun to encompass their workings during the last two or three generations, mainly through increased understanding of life zones and the advent of both satellites and submarines.

The fact that few people have visited the undersea world is a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because it means that negative impacts are limited;the fewer divers, the fewer broken coral heads. But it is also a curse, because most of the harm done to the sea has its origins on land. And land-dwellers who do not look underwater remain ignorant of the effects of their activities. The results of this negligence are pollution and ruined coastal ecosystems.

Divers, on the other hand, inhabit both worlds. They participate in the society that fills in coastal wetlands and dumps its wastes into the sea. But they also explore the ecosystems threatened by that society. Theirs is a unique perspective and one that places them in an important position. Whether recreational divers like it or not, they are the undersea eyes of humanity. I believe they have a duty to speak out on behalf of the oceans, that world which has no voice and cannot defend itself against the onslaught of human indifference.

Where do I get this often unpopular notion? Well, I think it is somehow implicit in the original intent of the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus;scuba.

I dont mean the Cousteau-Gagnan regulator, mistakenly credited as the first scuba apparatus. No, I mean the system designed by two Frenchmen, Benoit Rouquayrol and Auguste Denayrouze, more than 130 years ago.

Their story begins far from the sea, in the mining town of Espalion in central France. In the mid-19th century, cave-ins and floods were common in the mines, and miners often suffocated on poisonous gases. Rouquayrol, a young mining engineer, saw that rescuers needed a system that would help them descend into the mines and save the lives of miners overcome by fumes. In 1860, he invented a self-contained breathing apparatus involving a regulator, air tank and hose, and completed it with a nose plug.

Although he won the appreciation of miners and government, Rouquayrol couldnt turn a profit. Enter an old friend. Auguste Denayrouze, a boyhood buddy of Rouquayrol, had gone to sea. But in 1864 a chest ailment ended his naval career. Returning to Espalion, he bumped into Rouquayrol, who showed his friend his invention. Denayrouze immediately grasped its marine potential. The two friends went into business together, adding a helmet, called le groin;a pig snout;and a rubber suit to the apparatus. Tests in the water were positive and in 1865 the French Navy purchased their equipment in bulk. It soon set the standard for undersea salvage and construction because of its flexibility: it could be either fed with air from the surface or operated independently of the surface; the first truly self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.

So, from the very beginning, scuba was a life-saving venture. In the early days, the apparatus saved the lives of miners trapped in subterranean disasters. Today, scuba has the capacity to help save the human species by bringing us closer to an understanding of the oceans on which our survival depends.

Recently, I had a chance to dive with the Rouquayrol-Denayrouze apparatus. The dive took place in a tank at the Santa Barbara City College Marine Technology Center in Santa Barbara, California. It was sponsored by the Historical Diving Society, a group of enthusiasts who preserve and promote the too easily forgotten heritage of diving. The outfit was on loan from the Joseph Vaylet Diving Museum in France and this was the first time it had traveled abroad. I was immensely proud to dive such a beautiful and well-conditioned antique.

Of course, nothing was easy. As I was fitted with the Rouquayrol-Denayrouze, the helmet bore down uncomfortably on the crown of my head. The air tube fed in strangely from the side of the helmet. Once underwater, I had to concentrate on blowing air out through a tube, taking care not to exhale inside the helmet. The exhaust leaked, soon filling my mouth with water.

In short, it took some getting used to, and walking seemed strange after the effortlessness of fins. But after I became accustomed to the suit, I sensed the same feeling of freedom those early divers must have felt. I was overcome not only with wonder at the suits technical ingenuity, but with sympathy for its vision.

Diving has come a long way since this apparatus first descended into the mines of central France, but its ultimate priorities have not changed much. Though we now strap on our plastic and stainless steel systems to admire the beauty and magic of tropical coral reefs, we are still called to save what is worth saving.